In Sherri Warren’s files, there are copies of letters to legislators, investigative reports and news articles — all neatly indexed, tabbed and sorted in giant binders stored in a cedar chest next to her bed.
She also keeps a tattered cardboard box in her bedroom. It contains her brother’s blue backpack, navy hoodie, Jimi Hendrix visor and favorite work boots — and the sisal rope that was attached to the noose found around his neck.
Keith W. Warren was just 19 on July 31, 1986, when he was found suspended from a tree near the Silver Spring townhouse he shared with his sister and their mother, the late Mary Couey, a medical lab technician at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Police said the death was suicide, a finding that stands after numerous subsequent investigations and inquiries. His sister and other relatives think he was killed.
For 26 years, Sherri Warren has been on a quest to prove it, a quest that most recently left her hoping that a television documentary would generate enough renewed interest to trigger a new investigation. So far, it has not.
A dozen reviews have failed to convince her that justice has been done — and have failed to produce any closure.
She has spent several hours each week talking to authorities, consulting with experts, perusing files — time she might have used to get on with her life. Her efforts have stressed her relationship with her father, who said he thinks Keith Warren took his own life.
“I know people want me to go on,” she said. “I can’t. I’ll never stop until I find out the truth about what happened to end my brother’s life.”
A graduate of John F. Kennedy High School, Keith Warren had applied to college. He was working and dating. He was well liked, especially after their father, Cleo W. Warren, a former major with the Durham, N.C., police, presented him with a used blue Corvette, Sherri Warren said.
“I saw my brother every day, and if he was depressed or contemplating suicide, I would have known it,” said Warren, a marketing and promotions consultant who lives in Greenbelt.
The investigations into his death concluded that Warren wrapped a rope around the base of one tree, then another, and threw the rope over a branch. He put a noose around his neck while he was in a standing position and then sat back, a movement that produced enough pressure on his neck to kill him. Among those who have reinvestigated the case is Douglas F. Gansler, now Maryland’s attorney general, who launched a two-year review in 1999. He said in 2001 that it was very difficult to reinvestigate the case “in hindsight,” adding: “We still don’t know definitively what happened on that day.”
Montgomery County police officials said they have tried for years to provide answers to help loved ones come to terms with Keith Warren’s death.
“This investigation has had more reviews by more people than any other suicide,” said Capt. Dave Gillespie, who directs the major crimes section. “We empathize with the family for the loss of Keith, and it is important for us to help the family to have closure. But we can only tell the facts as we know them.”
According to a police report, Keith Warren was found in a wooded area “with his feet on the ground in a sitting posture” at the end of an oddly configured rope and noose. There were no eyewitnesses and no suicide note. Police found “no evidence of foul play.”
But Sherri Warren pointed to what she characterized as inconsistencies at the crime scene. The rope and noose were “too intricate” for someone who was suicidal to have looped over the trees and tied, she believes. And it vexes her that police ruled the death a suicide without interviewing his acquaintances or conducting an autopsy.
She followed in the footsteps of her mother, Couey, who delved into her son’s death until she died in 2009. Couey created the binders filled with police reports and newspaper clippings that her daughter now holds.
Police said Couey initially believed her son had killed himself. But she concluded that he had been killed in what appeared to her to be a gruesome lynching.
Montgomery police Detective Joe Mudano said he met with Couey several times, including once when he allowed her and a friend to read the investigative file. “I even allowed them to take notes,” he said.
Detective James Drewry, who has also looked into the death, said relatives thought that the position of the body — sitting — contradicted the suicide finding.
It did, however, stoke the interest of a researcher and filmmaker, Keith Beauchamp, after Sherri Warren asked him to look at the case. His findings were part of “The Injustice Files: At the End of a Rope,” which aired last month on the Investigation Discovery network. The program looked at the deaths of four black men who were found hanged. Beauchamp, who has investigated several civil rights era slayings for the FBI, said he found in reviewing Warren’s death “too many questions that the police could not answer and that raised red flags.”
In a recent interview at her Greenbelt townhouse, Sherri Warren said authorities’ failure to conduct an autopsy damaged any chances they had to prove the death a suicide.
Her hazel eyes seem to flash green when she is angry, and her voice rises to punctuate her thoughts. She knows she appears intimidating, but no one else, she says, knows how many tears she has cried.
Last month, a forensic pathologist she contacted from a cable television program, the last of several experts hired by the family, reviewed case documents — including findings of an autopsy the family had arranged after exhuming Keith Warren’s body. He thinks Warren was likely dead when he was placed on the tree, she said.
Police “can’t prove my brother killed himself any more than I can prove he didn’t,” Sherri Warren said. “I am a reasonable woman. I wasn’t there. I do not know what happened. That’s why they need to conduct a proper investigation. Do an autopsy. Have the medical examiner do a full physical exam of his body. Then questions would be answered.”
Gillespie, the Montgomery police caption, acknowledged that an autopsy should have been conducted but stands by the conclusion that Warren committed suicide.
In a statement, Cleo Warren, Keith’s father, said “police could have done a better job” investigating the case, although “police action or lack thereof does not change the facts of this case.”
“I want him to be allowed to rest in peace,” he said of his son.“I wish my daughter would go on with her life.”
Like her mother, Sherri Warren wants the cause of death changed to undetermined and a new investigation pursued by an agency outside Montgomery. She also wants a law to require autopsies in suspected suicides.
In her room, she shows more mementos, including some of her mother, who died of an undetermined illness a few days after Sherri Warren took her to a hospital for a fever.
“It’s my responsibility,” she said. “I am doing this to validate the last 23 years of my mother’s life and . . . for my brother. He was loved. He wasn’t a case number, double-O whatever. He was a physical person whose life and spirit were cut short, and I want to know why.”